Facing ICE in the Mission District

With the expiration of temporary protected status, one Salvadoran family may be split apart.

Fredy Ochoa, 42, was poring over the multitude of ice-cream flavors before him. Just as he was going to ask his son James what to order, he noticed something wrong: James’ face was crimson. “I can’t breathe, I’m dying,” James pleaded. 

Ochoa rushed him to the ER, where doctors discovered James had a fatal allergy to cashews. An EpiPen saved his life. Although James returned home afterwards in good health, the incident stuck with Ochoa. He knew he might be separated from his son soon, making this one of the last times he could help his youngest in an unexpected emergency.

Ochoa may be deported as early as September, making his days with his family here in San Francisco numbered. This is because he benefits from temporary protected status (TPS), a legal immigration position the government issues to citizens of nations facing a humanitarian crisis. Ochoa, along with 200,000 other Salvadorans, applied for TPS after an earthquake ravaged the country in 2001.

However, the Trump administration announced the termination of TPS for nine countries last fall, including El Salvador. Once TPS expires, all of that country’s beneficiaries become undocumented, making them susceptible to deportation.

If forced to leave the country, Ochoa could bring his kids back to El Salvador to keep the family together, but he thinks it would be unjust to them. Since they’re U.S.-born citizens, Ochoa feels that forcing them to move robs them of all the rights other American citizens receive, such as access to the high-quality medical services that saved James’ life.

“In El Salvador, if something like that would happen, he’d probably die. They don’t get proper medical attention,” Ochoa says. “Why should he have to go if he has a right to be here?”

Besides, to Freddy (named after his father, but with two d’s), 11, and James, 8, the U.S. is their only home. They play soccer with their dad in Golden Gate Park on weekends, and go fishing with him at Pacifica Pier. Adjusting to a new culture and country would be hard on the boys.

“I love my house, it’s so big!” James says. “It’s where all my Legos are.”

“This is all they know,” Ochoa says. “I think it would be like to get a wild bird and put them in a cage.”

On the other hand, staying in America would mean living without their dad. As they’re so young, Ochoa believes they need a father figure to support their ambitions and improve their characters. This feels even more poignant lately, since Freddy will start middle school next year. 

“The age that they have is the age that they need me,” Ochoa says. “It would be really hard for me to be separated from them now.”

Leaving San Francisco wouldn’t just be difficult on the kids, but on Ochoa, too. He considers the city his home; he’s lived on the same street in the Mission for more than 24 years. The city is especially significant because it provided escape from the violence he witnessed as a child during the Salvadoran civil war.

In 1994, when Ochoa was 18, he saw an uncle decapitated by the rebels in his village. After realizing he had no future in El Salvador, Ochoa crossed the border with another uncle illegally, and headed to California to meet up with his brother. He knew upon his arrival that the difficult trip was the right choice; a few weeks after he reached San Francisco, his mother called to tell him his aunt was raped and killed in front of his cousins.

After a few years as a contractor, Ochoa’s luck changed.

In 1996, the government deemed Salvadorans eligible for asylum, allowing him to become a legal immigrant. After an earthquake devastated El Salvador in 2001, Ochoa had a second chance: Just before his asylum status ended, he completed his first TPS application with the help of Instituto Familiar de la Raza, an S.F. Latinx community group, allowing him to stay longer. 

The government “put me on a removal proceeding for deportation in 2004,” he says, recalling the TPS designation announcement. “TPS saved my life.”

It makes all the difference. Without a Social Security number or a drivers license, he wouldn’t have been hired by his current company in the Bay Area. He wouldn’t have had money enough saved to get married, have kids, or acquire medical insurance. Best of all, he wouldn’t have to constantly fear being deported.

But, last fall, Ochoa experienced the unthinkable: the statutes began to end, on a rolling basis.

To be fair to the government, it never pretended TPS was something it wasn’t. It says “temporary” in its name, and the paperwork states that it’s not a path toward citizenship. And yet, 300,000 current beneficiaries were caught off guard. 

This is probably because TPS holders had little reason to think it would suddenly stop; they lived safely under the status for decades, as both Republican and Democrat administrations continued to renew it every year. For example, Honduras has had TPS since 1999, and Sudan since 1997. Ochoa himself renewed it for 17 years without a problem.

“I’ve lived more than half of my life here. I came when I was 18, now I’m 42,” Ochoa says. “It was really hard. That’s why I fled, and now they’re sending me back to the mouth of the lions.”

Ochoa feels the revocation is unfair. He cannot receive federal aid, he’s never committed a crime — he must send the government a criminal background check every year, and if he violates it, he’s deported — and he pays taxes. In addition, Ochoa has to re-apply for TPS every time the Department of Homeland Security renews it, which is usually every 12 to 18 months, costing him about $500 each time. Hardly any other class of immigration in the country is subject to as much scrutiny.

“The best solution is for the Congress to legislate a path to Permanent Resident status for TPS holders,” Ochoa says.

There are slivers of hope, however. Earlier this year, the administration re-approved Yemeni and Syrian TPS. And in March, nine TPS holders sued the federal government in a San Francisco court over the exact predicament Ochoa finds himself in. One of the main arguments they make in the case Ramos v. Nielsen is that children need to stay with their parents until they’re old enough to be independent. TPS parents can’t stay in America indefinitely, but at least long enough to see their kids live on their own.

Still, that’s a longshot. In the meantime, many TPS holders plan to lie low until ICE finds them, which seems likely considering the government has records of all their information. It isn’t hard to track them down.

Ochoa won’t go down without a fight. Desperate, anxious, and lacking back-ups, his final plan is an advance parole: He will return to El Salvador while he still has TPS, and re-enter as a legal resident. He thinks a labeled “legal” entry on his papers will fall under the good graces of DHS in the future, since the government currently has him listed with an illegal entry.

The plan is risky. A DHS agent could deny Ochoa re-entry into the United States and keep him in El Salvador despite his legal status, negating all his efforts to earn permanent residency in the States. If this happened, he’d be separated from his kids and his home in the Mission long before September 2019.

But when faced with this possibility, Ochoa merely shrugs and gives a gentle smile: “Sometimes you have to take chances. What else can you do?”

He will take little Freddy and James this time; he wants them to know where his family is from. Besides, it’s easier to face the world’s obstacles when his family is together.

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